This week there was a disturbance throughout the geek “interwebs” after John Hugues at Comics Alliance published an article titled Outrage Deferred: On The Lack Of Black Writers In The Comic Book Industry. This has led to talk of Dr. Jonathan Gayles’s 2012 documentary, White Scripts, Black Supermen: Black Masculinities in Comic Books. We’re also fast approaching the anniversary of the birthday and death of black comic book pioneer Dwyane McDuffie. All of this has magnified the usual buzz on race in comic books. And it jogged my memory. Back in 2000, I actually wrote on this very topic, as part of a presentation for a friend’s Blacks in Media course. In the fast-changing world of comic books however, that is of course several dozen crossovers ago. Nevertheless, given all the recent talk, decided to dig up the article and thought, what the heck, it’d make a decent blog.
Some preface: (1) As said, it’s an old article. The entire 21st century is missing (e.g.- the return of Black Panther under Reginald Hudlin, his marriage to Storm, etc). In fact, the end of the article pretty much coincides with my departure from collecting titles on a consistent basis. And you know what happens when you get out for a few years–when you get back, Wanda Maximoff has pretty much screwed up the whole damned Multiverse and the DC Universe has gone through a cosmic crunch. (2) This is not an encyclopedia. I didn’t cover everything. Didn’t even come close. There are sites however dedicated to meticulously researching and documenting black creators, artists and characters in comic books like The Museum of Black Superheroes and World of Black Superheroes. They are phenomenal! (3) I only scratch the surface of black indie comics, which has vastly grown (and become much more accessible) since I first wrote the article–due in great part to social media sites, blogs, etc. (4) Left the original article mostly as is. That means, no hyperlinks and probably some info that needs updating. The online sites I sourced for much of this seem to have vanished. So if you see anything I missed, feel free to comment!
Race, Society and the Comic World
“You’re the second donkey who’s tried blastin’ me away tonight, and like I tole the other fella, you got a lot to learn ’bout Black Lightning.”–Justice League of America #173
I’ve always liked comics: super villains, alien worlds, the whole tights and cape wearing lifestyle. I dreamed of living in Metropolis. I laughed at Spider Man’s wisecracks. I wanted to cast spells like Dr. Strange.
But beyond childish fantasy, comics offered startling insight on society, politics and more. Race was no exception.
A child of the late 70s, the only black hero I saw regularly was the spoofed Brown Hornet who fought giant waffle irons and man-eating fly swatters. Using his superpowers, he always managed to escape (naturally) unharmed. But where Bill Cosby’s character was silly but loveable, the Brown Hornet’s earlier white-created counterparts were often vastly different.
In the 1940s, Marvel comics came up with a super team called the Young Allies: clean-cut American kids foiling the schemes of Axis “Krauts” and “Japs.” Amongst our dashing white heroes was Whitewash, a zoot suit wearing, bug-eyed, thick-lipped Sambo: 1940’s Jar Jar Binks. Comic covers often featured the eternally “spooked” Whitewash, helplessly tied up by the menacing Nazi Red Skull or near sub-human depicted Japanese, waiting for his youthful white saviors.
In stark contrast were the black comic creations of the era, appearing as panels in black-owned publications. Most weren’t of super heroes, but rather gags, soap operas or social commentary. These black cartoonists used their strips to counter negative stereotypes, offering humorous escapes, more realistic depictions of blacks and highlighting social injustices.
Yet a few dabbled in the realm of super characters, often patterned after popular concepts of the time. Carl Pfeufer’s Chislom Kid was a black cowboy of the Old West. Ed Ashe’s Guy Fortune was a black special agent while Mark Hunt was an ace detective. Most popular were black WW2 super heroes, refutations of Whitewash.
Jay Jackon’s Speed Jaxon was a mercenary fighting Fascist Italians in Ethiopia and in search of hidden African kingdoms. Similarly, Douglas Akins’ Sergeant Joe was a tough war hero. In Ollie Harrington’s Jive Gray, the flying ace teams up with a black heroine out to save her scientist father from Nazis. But 1950s Neil Knight was the boldest creation. Rocketing through space, Knight boldly went where no other black hero had gone before: unconfined by the tethers of the white world, soaring off to explore distant planets.
Yet even black cartoonists mimicked the racism of their society. Hence the Chislom Kid regularly fought “Injuns” and Sergeant Joe’s Japanese were embarrassing caricatures. Regardless these black cartoonists were using their creativity to counter black stereotypes and explore their role in speculative fiction.
Back in the mainstream comic world Whitewash remained the norm. White blonde-haired jungle women like Lorna and Sheena reigned supreme in Africa, with nary a drop of Coppertone. Africans were relegated to threatening savages, jabbering bushman sidekicks or awe-struck primitives.
Yet some white comic creators were sensitive to matters of race. 1950s Entertainment Comics were no saints. Tales from the Crypt, Vault of Horror, and Weird Science resorted to gibberish African natives when need be. But they also ventured to test societal boundaries.
“In Gratitude,” appearing in late 1953 in Shock SuspenStories 11, told of white Korean vet Joey Norris who lost a hand to a grenade. Joey survived only because a black hometown citizen died smothering the grenade with his body. He is dismayed to learn his black war buddy will not be buried in the Norris whites-only family cemetery. At a town hall welcoming rally Joey shocks the crowd by declaring, “I gave my right hand defending freedom and equality and I was proud of it…until today….” In a noble speech he indicts his fellow white citizens, and all of America in the process. One by one the shamed whites file from the auditorium, leaving Joey alone sobbing with tears.
In “Under Cover,” from Shock SuspenStories 6, a masked KKK like outfit murders a white reporter for attempting to reveal its “Grand Master.” The story concludes: “Safe behind their masks of prejudice, these hooded peddlers of racial, religious, and political hatred operate today! … It is time to unveil these usurpers of our constitutionally guaranteed freedoms!”
For the most part EC looked at race without using black characters. “Judgment Day,” from Weird Fantasy 18 in 1953, broke that mold. The story centers about a helmeted Earth astronaut named Tarlton who lands on Cybrinia, a planet of orange and blue robots, to determine the sentient machines’ eligibility to the Galactic Republic. In Cybrinian society orange robots are on top. Blue robots are second-class citizens segregated to impoverished ghettos—Blue Town. In this precursor to Dr. Seuss’ star-bellied Sneeches, Tarlton attempts to convince the orange robots that they and the blues are the same, but for their painted coverings. He tells the Cybrinians that until they overcome their prejudices, their admittance will be denied. Returning to his ship Tarlton removes his helmet, revealing that he is a black man.
The eve of the Civil Rights movement found 1950s America yet unwilling to so openly discuss race. EC publisher Bill Gaines was subpoenaed to testify before a Senate committee on un-American activities during the height of McCarthyism. Political pressure and an ensuing censorship code effectively put EC out of the comics industry. For the next decade nervous companies shied away from any discussion on racism, until the Black Power Movement shook things up forever.
By the late 1960s neither Whitewash nor babbling jungle natives was going to cut it any longer. It was not that black cartoonists offered mainstream companies damaging competition. Rather, this was an era of raised fists and shouts of “Black Power!” James Brown was telling the world “I’m Black and I’m Proud!” And whites, both in awe and fear of this new brazen declaration, devoured these new images of blacks. Marvel and DC needed characters that were tough, undeniably black and didn’t take “no shit” from the man. Blaxploitation–that genre of whitey smackin’, jive talking, sexuality dripping, afro-wearing, kung-fu fighting, gun wielding ghetto super stars–had arrived
Some twenty years after Whitewash, Marvel introduced its first major black hero in Fantastic Four No. 52, July 1966. Hailing from a mythical African nation called Wakanda, he was smart, strong, fearless and fast–in essence everything Whitewash wasn’t. His people weren’t jungle primitives, but technologically sophisticated beyond Western standards. His African name was T’Challa, but everyone knew him best as Black Panther.
Situated interestingly between the first popular use of the slogan “Black Power!” (June 1966) and the founding of Huey Newton and Bobby Seale’s Black Panther Party for Self Defense (October 1966), Black Panther broke the color barrier of comics like some inked Jackie Robinson. But Marvel wasn’t insane. This character wasn’t going to be reading quotes from Mao’s Little Red Book or found shouting “Off the Pigs!” Like his movie screen Blaxploitation cohorts, Black Panther the hero tamed the reality of the Black Power Movement: working with the system and even all-American white bread teams like the Avengers. He had the look of the menacing jungle cat, but little roar.
This is not to say Marvel’s new character was a kitten. Over time Black Panther would tangle with everyone from Klan members to apartheid super-villains. And though many balked he was not radical enough, who isn’t going to cheer watching a guy in a Black Panther suit put a beat down on Pretoria’s super-soldiers?
And thus began an era of black characters with white creators. Captain America No. 117, 1969 introduced The Falcon, a one-time Harlem Hustler turned crime fighter. Not to be out done, DC countered in Teen Titans with Mal Duncan: a super hero minus super powers, or even one of those nifty do-it-all belts. All he originally had were his knee-high leather boots, gold chain medallion, wide opened shirt and ghetto catch phrases.
In this tit for tat war Marvel in 1972 Hero for Hire No. 1 countered with Luke Cage, known better as Power Man. Wrongfully imprisoned, Cage becomes a medical guinea pig and accidentally receives super powers. With his gold wrist bracelets, chain-link belt, electric gold jump suit, and rich curly hair, Luke Cage could be Mal Duncan and then some.
Beyond the Rudy-Ray-Moore personas, there were other black heroes. In DC’s Fourth World saga Jack Kirby’s Black Racer was the blending of the incarnation of death with a quadriplegic black Vietnam veteran. In 1973 DC introduced a black heroine in Nubia, Wonder Woman’s black twin snatched away by the god of war Ares and raised to despise her fair-skinned kin. In this bizarre take on the “curse of Ham” scenario, Nubia is the villainous leader of a group of “savage” warrior women bent on destroying the Amazons. Eventually Wonder Woman makes her ebon-skinned sibling see reason, convincing her followers to give up their ferocious jungle ways. Nubia typified numerous attempts by early white creators: nice tries with seemingly inescapable racist overtones.
In Giant-Size X-Men No. 1, 1975 writer Chris Claremont introduced the first major black heroine to the Marvel universe. Born to an African-American photojournalist and an African princess, Ororo Monroe loses both parents in a plane accident. With the ability to control the weather she becomes worshipped as a living goddess in her Kenyan homeland. Taking up the name Storm she joins the mutant X-Men, becoming a comic icon. Yet real life racism, notably white notions of beauty, did not leave her unmolested. The weather goddess has often been called “vanilla negress” by her detractors, who claim she is simply a white woman in black face. Touted as the most beautiful black woman in comics, with her bone straight hair and blue eyes, Storm is certainly no Alek Wek.
Luckily some disasters were avoided altogether.
In the 1970s DC came up with the Black Bomber, a white bigot subjected to biochemical experiments who during times of stress turned into a black super-hero. Taking Watermelon Man to absurd new heights, the Black Bomber remained unaware of his dual racial identity. Only his girlfriends–one white, one black–knew his secret. His costume was similar to that of the Harlem Globetrotters.
Luckily for brain-cell preserving humans everywhere, creator Fred Hembeck claims to have convinced DC that a white bigot as their first powerful black super hero would be the worst idea in the history of worst ideas. The Black Bomber was scrapped and work began on another character: Jefferson Pierce, Black Lightning.
Pierce grew up in Metropolis’s Suicide Slum, a place sorely neglected by Lois Lane’s journalism. Running afoul of brutal hoodlums Pierce becomes Black Lightning, a blue jumpsuit wearing crime-fighter with electrical powers. A schoolteacher, Pierce is a far cry from kung-fu street hustlers like Luke Cage and The Falcon. But don’t think he’s soft. Invited to join the Justice League of America, Lightning turns down the lily-white outfit stating, “With that bunch of jive turkeys? Forget it!”
Like Pierce, DC’s next major black character is no hero thug, though he comes from a dysfunctional family. An architect, John Stewart comes to possess a ring that transforms him into The Green Lantern: one of many galactic guardians.
The 80s and 90s saw an explosion of blacks in mainstream comics, as if a neglected but mandatory affirmative action clause had been discovered. Many of these were second-stringers that came and went. Like their sci-fi movie cousins, they often suffered a high mortality rate. Other black heroes were created from variations of white characters of times past. It had been done before. John Stewart was the “Black Green Lantern.” And before him Marvel created a “Black Dr. Strange” with Brother Voodoo and a “Black Dr. Henry Pym” in the giant-growing Black Goliath.
In 80s this trend continued with a new Captain Marvel, this time in the form of a black woman, Monica Rambeau. DC followed with a black Invisible Kid II (replacing the first white Invisible Kid), who appeared in the futuristic Legion of Super-Heroes. Jim Rhodes, long time friend of Tony Starks, became the next Iron Man in the form of War Machine. DC’s tin-man in black face was Irons: a genius in a suit of armor who takes on Superman’s duties during the seeming demise of Metropolis’ guardian. Marvel’s Deathlok, first premiering as a white man in Astonishing Tales #25 in 1972, by 1990 had become a black man, Michael Collins–a pacifist out to expose his corrupt employer who ends up in the body of a machine of war with a nasty attitude.
Beyond these once white heroes, there were some unique individuals. After an inter-dimensional creature severely injures young Victor Stone, his genius father fits him into a cybernetic suit. Taking on the name Cyborg, he premieres in Teen Titans #1. In 1990 Dark Horse comics created Martha Washington, a 15-year old virtual lethal weapon from an ultra-violent not-too-distant future. A traveler from a genetic war-torn future, Bishop (an indigenous Australian whose “blackness” Marvel ingeniously plays loose and fast with) premieres in Uncanny X-Men No. 282, 1992 and eventually becomes a member of the mutant team. And then there was Image Comics’ Al Simmons, Spawn.
Betrayed and murdered, CIA assassin Al Simmons goes to Hell. There the Head Demon in Charge promises to restore him to his beloved wife Wanda, in return for service in Hell’s army. A sucker for black love, Simmons agrees only to be outfitted in the latest in Hell’s viral-fashion line. Returned to the realm of the living as a Hellspawn, Simmons finds he’s been duped. Years have passed, his faithful Wanda is now remarried to his best friend and he’s trapped in a decaying body (when he attempts to become human flesh, he can only do so as a white man). Selfish loner turned hero, Spawn finds himself on the hit list of mobsters, government agents, Heaven, Hell and just about everyone else. He is the tragic modern heroic black man, trapped in a white man’s universe but busting his ass to get by. He even keeps it real and stays in the hood.
These black personas from white minds reflected societal perceptions of blacks through time: from buffoons to individuals hardened by the streets, slums, futuristic apocalypses or Hell itself. Rare was the black hero from a functional family and economically stable community, or who wasn’t the singular voice of the oppressed.
Like The Falcon and Luke Cage, many early heroes were ghetto superstars out to save the hood, akin to Dolemite or Shaft. These characters and their surroundings gave us white ideals of blacks living in some romanticized urban jungle that not only bred ferocious predators, but also noble savages. Black Lightning’s Slum City was the black ghetto of the white imagination: as real as it had never been portrayed, yet as unreal as it truly ever was.
Later black heroes were similarly called upon to defend the proletariat masses. Both Bishop and Martha Washington fight for ghetto inhabitants of apocalyptic futures. Spawn returns from Hell to become the protector of the dregs of society. Even the godly Storm sullied her gloves as the “tribal” chieftain of the sewer dwelling mutant outcasts, the Morlocks.
Such dire situations no doubt account for the black superheroes’ terrible demeanor. Even with a hulking body, futuristic weapons and the power to absorb and return energy upon his foes, Bishop needs only his menacing glare to scare the beejeezus out of any villain. Wonder Woman’s sister Nubia, who is angry with everyone, has to be tamed of her savage ways. Storm briefly loses her mutant powers, reverting back to her youthful days as a Cairo street thief. Dressed in leather and a mohawk, she becomes a rebellious punk-Hip Hop hybrid bad girl. Frank Miller’s Martha Washington is ghetto-anger personified, making Rambo and the Terminator combined look like pansies.
This angry black persona surfaces most often in how these characters deal with bigotry. They often strike out blindly in acts of vengeance: as if somehow never before having experienced racism in their black lives. In a Batman team up, Black Lightning endangers a high stakes mission by recklessly attacking a villain–because one of his bad guys ran over an elderly black woman. Batman is forced to play the part of the chastising white father figure. White Green Lantern, Hal Jordan, similarly chastises apprentice John Stewart for his rash behavior towards a bigoted white politician.
Acts of racism, or race consciousness, rarely interrupt the lives of later black heroes. But when they occur, these characters become not just emotional hotheads but violent vigilantes. Spawn leaves Klan members mangled and broken in his wake. Fifteen-year old Martha Washington takes on gay neo-nazi gangs. Institutional racism, the subtle racism of white privilege, is not something however these heroes ever seem to agonize over or encounter. It’s always the racism that only a good beat-down can cure.
The only foray into race and racism with a bit of complexity is with the Children of the Atom: the X-Men. Mutants, humans born with a special “x” factor in their genes that gives them varied powers, are a feared and hated minority group. They suffer oppression and acts of brutal violence. People don’t want mutants in schools with their children. There are hate groups claiming to be for normal human rights that think mutants should be rounded up. In the mythical Genosha, located curiously off the coast of Southeast Africa, they are enslaved. There’s even a derogatory word for mutants, “mutie.”
So how do mutants react to this oppression? One group led by the white wheelchair bound psychic Professor X, hopes for a better world where little mutant girls and little normal boys will one day hold hands–referred to as his “dream.” Another led by the white master of magnetism Magneto, fights for mutant power and liberation. Sound familiar? Many have certainly seen the almost glaring reference to the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements, with Professor X standing in for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Magneto standing in for Malcolm X.
This analysis has been disputed over the years. Stan Lee never stated directly that the Black Protest movements of the 1960s were his inspiration—neither however does he deny them. Jack Kirby isn’t around any more to tell us much of anything. And indeed, early X-Men comics are ambiguous as to their meaning. No clear-cut answers for sure. And Marvel, seeming to revel in the idea that their comic is “cutting-edge,” neither affirms or disavow these claims. However, what seems most clear is that by the time writer Chris Claremont comes around in the 1970s and 80s to take the reins of the X-Men, the Martin and Malcolm themes become most apparent. In fact, the first motion picture version this past year was pitched to the director as a classic battle between Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. As if to emphasize the point, Magneto’s last words in the movie were “by any means necessary.”
While fascinating, and latched onto often by black X-Men fans, this theme also echos a disturbing white moral judgment on black politics and race in general: MLK Jr. good, Malcolm X bad. Like MLK and the Civil Rights Movement the X-Men and Professor X fight for integration; appealing to liberal humans in hopes “we can all just get along.” Magneto is portrayed as a reverse-racist, a Malcolm X type figure tormented by past oppression. Mutant and proud, he is a fiery militant who at one point even leads a “Brotherhood of Evil.” Magneto and his followers, like the Black Power Movement, have lost faith in the “dream.”
These white ideas of blackness and race would dominate the comic world until finally black cartoonists, as in times past, stepped forward to if not challenge–at least modify them. The 80s and 90s saw a host of black created comic books and companies. There was Malcolm 10, the Afrocentric inspired Heru Son of Ausar and numerous other valiant but short-lived projects. Most famous of these however was Milestone Comics: a product of cartoonist/creator Dwayne McDuffie and others published through mainstream giant DC. In their four-year run they published over 200 comics with a multi-cultural cast, often exploring controversial social issues beyond the perspectives of earlier white writers. Their two most well-known characters were Icon and Static.
Icon was actually Augustus Freeman IV, an extra-terrestrial who crash-lands into the antebellum South and takes up the guise of a black slave. Centuries later he teams up with 15-year-old Raquel Ervin, who becomes his sidekick Rocket. The comic not only pushes the envelope when Raquel becomes a pregnant single mother, but subtly critiques black mainstream heroes through a symbolic Blaxploitation character: Buck Wild.
Static meanwhile was the story of 15-year-old Virgil Hawkins, who receives electrical super powers. Static not only fights super villains but also deals with problems common to teens in an urban environment, without the need of the hero thug persona of his predecessors.
These figures seem to magnify the differing perspectives of their creators. Earlier mainstream black characters, despite their white creators’ best attempts, reflected popular contemporary white notions about blacks. In the 1940s blacks are buffoons. In the 1960s and 70s we are ghetto-superstars. In the 80s and 90s we’re just angry. Racism itself is perceived and discussed from a white perspective. The full complexity of black philosophy, life and culture is rarely revealed. Did John Stewart join a black fraternity in college? Does Storm lament the lack of mutant brothas for her to date? Did Al Simmons (Spawn) and his friend Terry Fitzgerald ever meet secretly by the water cooler at the CIA to talk about something stupid or racist a coworker had done? Did Martha Washington ever do the Harlem Shuffle at weddings? Have Luke Cage or Black Falcon ever worked with the Fruit of Islam? Has Black Lightning ever had a bean pie? And does Sunspot of X-Force consider himself Afro-Latino or just Latino?
From the start black comics put their own interpretation on speculative fiction. Speed Jaxon fought Italian invaders of Ethiopia, because that was important to black people. Neil Knight left the white world, blasting off to have adventures without the burden of racism. Black creators perceived themselves as cowboys, special agents, private detectives, scientists and more. In the 1980s and 90s, black cartoonists once again reconstructed themselves for and by themselves. Malcolm X was a hero while black gods like Heru roamed ancient Africa. In characters like Icon, black cartoonists dared to touch on issues like slavery–glaringly neglected by white counterparts. Here was the freedom to explore black identity without the boundaries many white created black characters placed on black cartoonists.
In the end it is a tale of perceptions and perhaps lived experiences. And the heroes that live between the colorful pages of our comics will go only as far as the imaginations of their creators.